“There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels”
— Exxon scientist James Black to top management in 1977
We’ve known about the effect of fossil fuel burning on climate for a long time. Dr. James Black described the state of the science to Exxon management over 40 years ago. Exxon first responded with a decade-long research program measuring carbon dioxide and performing other climate research, which confirmed the severity of the climate crisis. In the 1980s Exxon abruptly cut its climate research and shifted to intense climate denial, including strong funding for disinformation factories.
What’s happened to the climate since 1977, when Exxon knew about the heating effect of fossil fuels? Earth’s temperature has risen sharply. You can see from the image below that around three-fourths of global heating has happened since 1977. The heating has accelerated substantially since the mid-1970s as well. Anyone born in the 1980s or later has never experienced a “colder than average” year on Earth.
Explore this data and other plots of temperature change from NASA GISS here.
You can listen to a sonic representation of NASA global temperature data, made with Judy Twedt, in the video below. Higher pitch notes represent higher temperature. The drums are there to make it funky.
Could Earth’s fever be natural? The answer to this question is very clear: the heating of the Earth is caused by industrial pollution. In fact, the best estimate of the industrial-caused component is 100% (with approximate range 70-130%). Natural ups and downs of climate over the record are equally likely to have caused cooling than warming, in isolation from the pollution-induced effects.
Global heating is mostly due to the fossil fuel industry: carbon dioxide (CO2) and many other pollutants are released into the atmosphere in the extraction, refining and burning of coal, oil and fossil methane gas. Industrial agriculture and the chemical industry are also responsible to different degrees. Fossil fuel emissions have skyrocketed in recent decades: doubling since 1975, and increasing by a factor of 6 since 1950.
Data from the Global Carbon Project.
Carbon dioxide has a very long lifetime within the atmosphere. A sizable fraction of the extra CO2 put into the air by the fossil fuel industry will still be present tens of thousands of years from now. Dozens, even hundreds of future generations will be affected by the pollution of the current Industrial Era.
Try experimenting yourself with emissions reductions using the Future Climate interactive tool below. By moving the blue slider you can change emissions of all pollutants up or down compared with today. If you try to stop temperatures from rising, you’ll find that fossil fuel burning has to stop with astonishing rapidity.
Future Climate interactive tool by EarthGames
The target argued by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in the international climate negotiations is 1.5o C above preindustrial. The international community, on the other hand, has agreed only to warming “well below” 2o C above preindustrial. These targets will only be met with rapid shuttering of many extractive industries.
Fossil fuel burning has to stop. Instead of rapidly increasing emissions, as has occurred over recent decades, the curve needs to reverse direction and plummet to near zero. Not just in electricity generation and transportation, but in buildings, industry and agriculture as well. Not just in some countries but in all countries around the world. Another country’s slow progress is no excuse for inaction because we all have to end up at the same place: no fossil fuels. Each additional ton of CO2 emitted along the inevitable path to zero does damage, by heating the planet for thousands of years.
Currently fossil fuels provide most of the power for transportation, electricity and industry, across the planet. About 60% of electricity generation, 98% of cars, and many industrial practices must be shuttered or replaced. Deforestation, the permanent cutting down of forests usually to clear land for agriculture, must also drop to near zero. The scale of change required to get to zero emissions is tremendous; every facet of so-called modern life must be changed.
The word “radical” comes from the Latin for root. Radical thinkers look for the root causes rather than superficial fixes or bandages. The climate crisis was borne from a system that prioritizes profit over people, and considers many people’s lives to be expendable. When so much needs to be rebuilt, radical thinkers can break the mold that entrenched all these systems of oppression and extraction, and replace them with something better.
Without radical changes, we’re facing a world of increasing inequality, as climate impacts hit those that are most vulnerable first. Additionally, many false-solution strategies being touted by potential profiteers require tremendous amounts of energy and resources, overuse of land, and exposure of workers and communities to new health risks. Radical thinkers can help ensure that all the other ecological crises that are associated with the Industrial Era, like biodiversity loss, water scarcity, soil degradation, and pollution don’t get worse when climate is addressed.